If we were sum up the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism when it comes to soteriology it would be this: Protestants are saved by faith alone and Catholics are saved by faith plus works.
As Protestant apologist James White puts it, “Only that empty hand of faith can grasp the hand of grace.”
However, are Protestants and Catholics really that far apart?
One devout 19th century thinker wrote the following about justification:
After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone…. In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself (CCC, 2011).
The above is not written by Charles Spurgeon. It is a quote from a Catholic, Saint Therese of Lisieux. It is quoted word for word in the Roman Catholic Catechism and it is expected that all Roman Catholics believe it.
So, both Protestants and Catholics believe we approach God with empty hands. Both Protestants Roman Catholics believe they are saved by being “clothed in” Christ’s righteousness with no desire to earn heaven by good works.
What’s going on here? Are Roman Catholics just really inconsistent and unlearned, or are we not understanding what they are saying?
Without getting into indulgences and sacramental theology, I am going to make the argument that Catholics believe that people go to heaven by faith alone in the sense Protestants define the term “faith.” When we understand this, I think it is possible for us to identify that its is not faith or works, but rather sacraments that separates Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Getting Our Protestant Definitions Straight. “Faith,” in Protestantism is not mere intellectual assent. Calvin wrote that we are “saved by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone.” Luther concurred with this definition.
It is possible to believe that salvation is by faith alone, but that it can also be lost. For example, Luther allowed for the possibility that justified believers can fall away and lose their salvation (though he was inconsistent on this point.) How could someone lose their salvation according to Protestant theology? Obviously, it’s not by doing bad stuff (because doing good stuff does not save you). Rather, it’s by losing the faith someone once had.
Being that the faith that saves contains good works, then if one is saved by faith alone, someone who gives into temptation and commits great sin has evidently betrayed the faith and forfeited salvation. True faith, cannot include unrepentant sin. So, those with unrepentant sin are faithless and are therefore not saved–not because they did bad stuff but specifically because those who “unrepentantly” do bad stuff do not have faith.
Catholicism’s Similar Application of the Above Concepts in Different Words. Does Catholicism teach something similar to the idea that one is saved by a faith alone, but this faith includes works, and that such a faith can be forfeited via unrepentant sin? Yes.
Roman Catholicism teaches, “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial* grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion” (CCC 2010). In translation, one does not have faith by his own willing. “The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him” (CCC 1432). This conversion, according to Catholics, instantly makes one saved:
The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification…Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ…Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men (CCC, 1989, 1991, 1992).
As one can see, none of this is any different than Protestantism.
Where Catholicism begins to differ with Calvinists is over what happens after the believer has a new heart. Calvinists believe that the faithful will persevere to the end. However, Catholics otherwise agree with the rest of Protestantism which teaches that man must cooperate with God’s grace specifically by maintaining the faith lest he fall and forfeit salvation through his faithlessness:
The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit…The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God (CCC 2008, 2011).
So, like Protestantism, Catholicism teaches that one is saved entirely by the merits of Christ.
However, there is one surface level difference between Protestantism and Catholicism on this point: these merits of Christ are achieved (at least in part) by works performed by man through the grace of Christ, according to the Catholic. Protestantism teaches that this merit has nothing to do with works performed by man (even if God is the one performing them through man.)
Yet, Protestants also affirm that those same works affect how good Heaven will be (or how bad Hell will be). So, while the Catholic says we are saved by faith and made righteous through works done through us by Christ, the Protestant says we are saved and made righteous by faith, and works don’t make man righteous but rather solely affect his judgement.
However, this difference rings hollow if we understand what salvation is. If we are judged as righteous by God, we are rewarded with salvation. Salvation is communing with God. Not all people commune with God equally, as some are rewarded with more communion than others. Most Protestants (here is John Piper’s take on it) affirm this idea, including the Reformers.
If communing with God includes literally being like God (being transformed into His likeness and goodness starting in this life and going into the next) then good works are an essential part of being saved. Why? Because salvation is more than being accounted as good–it is being good because God is good and the good we do in this life has a proportional effect on how much “saving” God is going to do to you (i.e. the “rewards” in heaven God gives you).
This means for all practical purposes the Protestant position is no different than the Catholic one. Nominally, Protestants simply avoid speaking of man being saved or justified more than another man, because they prefer to speak about one man being rewarded more than another. What Protestants call the “rewards” of heaven, Catholics call an “increase of justification” (Council of Trent, Canon X).
The concepts are identical in fact, but the wording is completely different. Catholicism teaches that we are indwelt by Christ’s righteousness and do consummate good which makes them more righteous–and salvation is the process of becoming more righteous. Protestantism teaches that we are indwelt by Christ’s righteousness and do consummate good which merits more reward–salvation is the process of getting in 1. right standing with God and then 2. doing good works by God’s grace, resulting in increased rewards in heaven.
But do Catholics believe that the “rewards” for our good works are “earned” by those good works? No more than Protestants believe the rewards we merit earn salvation.
According to the CCC, “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator” (2007). By God’s grace, man does good which merits more reward in heaven–they are not man’s work, but the work of God.
Being that merit by Catholicism’s own definition does not include a “strict right” to reward, we are compelled to understand merit as something we merely have a claim to by God’s grace due to His promise that he recompenses the faithful for the good they have done, not as something we deserved in of ourselves. I believe this is much closer to the Protestant view of meriting heavenly rewards than we think.
Closing Note. So, being that Catholics do not teach one is saved by works any more than Protestants do, what is the difference? Sacraments. Protestants, ultimately, say, “I don’t need no stinkin’ sacraments to be saved!” Catholics reject this, other than in those cases where it is literally impossible for the faithful to receive physical sacraments.
So, let’s stop arguing over the doctrine of justification. Catholics and Protestants are not as far apart as they think. They are pretty much in the same place, but they employ different words to explain the same thing.
The argument, rather, is over sacraments. So do we need sacraments or don’t we? That’s the argument. Waste your time with that one, maybe you’ll get somewhere.
*The issue of infant salvation throws a wrench in the works. Most Catholics believe they are saved upon “implicit” faith in Christ when they were baptized. Lutherans and Anglicans believe the same thing (and those who affirm Infant Salvationism essentially believe the same thing too.) Being that this whole topic is sticky and not really sensible to begin with, I am simply going to leave it there and focus on cognizant believers.